An icy wind whipped bare tree branches and swirled the dead brown leaves around the trunk of dormant trees. Dark clouds, ready to relieve themselves of their burden, hung low over the bare-armed trees. The clouds’ relief was a life-threatening concern for Jim and Janey Cook who were wending their way home with a wagon filled with firewood. The storm would be brutal when it came.
“Ahh, Janey! Look to the right, under that cottonwood,” remarked Jim stopping the horse pulling the wagon. He pointed to a blanket-wrapped figure leaning against the base of the tree. Only a face was visible.
Janey ran to the figure and discovered an old woman in the blanket. Crouching she touched the woman’s face and neck finding warmth and shallow breathing. Her quick, skilled hands found no broken bones.
“Jim, Hurry!” Janey called. “She’s unconscious but she’s breathing. She’s so very chilled.”
Reluctantly Jim knelt beside Janey and the woman.
“Janey, you know the ways of these people. We shouldn’t interfere with their customs.”
Janey had heard that sometimes the plains people left the old or weak ones behind in the cold season when they moved their camp. It wasn’t cruelty, but necessity if they could no longer keep up or contribute to the welfare of the group.
“Their ways are not my ways, so sayeth the Lord,” Janey declared. “As long as I have breath in my body, I am going to do what I can to keep another alive! Besides, I know this woman. She doesn’t walk fast, but I’ve seen her gathering herbs. Now, help me get her into the wagon.”
Jim knew better than to argue with his strong-willed wife, and he loved her more for it. Together they moved some wood and made a bed for the old woman. Janey wrapped the woman in her cloak and held her head in her lap. Jim covered them both with his own coat.
The wind churned what the clouds spit out into a whirling white froth. In the dizzying whiteness, they let the horse find its way home. By the time they arrived, they were totally iced in the hoary white frost of the season’s first blizzard.
The storm howled and rattled at their window and door for two days, and Janey tended the woman, warming her with blankets, broth and herbal tea.
“Come on, good Grandmother,” Janey cooed lifting the woman’s head. “Drink this tea. It will make you strong again.”
Half awake, the old woman obeyed, swallowing the warming liquid.
On the third day the wind died, the clouds retreated, and sparkling snowdrifts reflected the sun’s thin rays. The old woman opened her eyes with the sunshine and stared warily at Jim and Janey.
“Good morning, Grandmother. Are you better?” Janey’s gentle manner soothed the woman. “Can you understand me?”
The old woman nodded. She understood most of the words, but mostly she understood the kindness in Janey’s eyes.
“Why,” was all the old woman said. She remembered lagging farther and farther behind as her people moved their camp. She had ignored the pleas of her own daughter and chose death rather than be a burden to her family.
Janey tenderly touched the woman’s shoulder.
“I have a grandmother who couldn’t move with us either,” Janey told the old woman. “But I never could have let her stay out in the cold. Besides, we believe that death is not our choice. That decision is in the
hands of God.”
The old woman smiled weakly at the two young people who had snatched her from death’s door, then drifted into a healing slumber.
Throughout the long cold season, the two women grew closer, learning from each other and sharing all they had. Janey learned the fine design of intricate beadwork, and Grandmother, as Janey and Jim called her, learned about God.
“I want to know your God,” the old woman had told Janey and Jim, “the God who sent his son to be born during these dark earth hours, and who sent you to find me.”
In the spring when folks asked Jim why they let the old woman stay, Jim replied, “It’s simple. Janey left her mother and grandmother to come west with me. This woman fills a hollow in Janey’s heart, and Janey completes the old woman’s life. They need each other.”
He sighed, “Let’s just say that Grandmother, in the winter of her life is the sunshine of the spring that is my Janey’s life.”
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